Independence Bowl is small time, but still a good time

December 11, 1990|By Mike Preston

It's always why, why, why. . . .

Why is there a Poulan-Weed Eater Independence Bowl? Why is it played in Shreveport, La.? Why did the bowl's officials invite two average teams? Why did they accept?

"I understand the questions," said Brant Goyne, selection committee chairman, who was primarily responsible for pitting Maryland (6-5) and Louisiana Tech (8-3) for this year's game, Saturday in Independence Stadium.

"We're the smallest geographical area of all the bowl sites, we play at an early date and we have had some problems. But we've got a sponsor now, the support is growing locally and we feel like Dorothy in 'The Wizard of Oz.' There's no place like home."

Shreveport, with a population of 250,000, can benefit from a bowl. The city was an oil town until 1986, but it now has a foreign trade zone offering incentives for major industries to locate in the area.

The city's labor force was at its peak in the mid-1980s at 169,900. It has decreased to 155,700, with 9,800 people unemployed.

Still, people in Shreveport love their theater, steamboats, horse racing, Cajun food and the reported $10 million the Independence Bowl pumps into their economy.

And it was their love of football that got the game started.

"It was back in 1975 that Arkansas State, a member of the Southland Conference, went 9-1, but they didn't go to a bowl," said Orvis Sigler, a member of the Shreveport Sports Foundation, which originated the bowl. "A lot of the locals thought that was a shame and suggested that we get something started.

"So, we did, with the Southland Conference champion becoming the host team. The first game was played in the same year we honored our country's 200th anniversary, so we designated it the Independence Bowl."

There have been problems. The date of the game comes too early, conflicting with exams. Sponsors were hard to find, and so was a television contract.

Even nature has interfered. Last year's game was played in 15-degree weather with a wind chill that made the temperature feel like 0 at game time. Goyne remembers a tornado watch one year.

"We just tell people to bring summer clothes, winter clothes and their rain gear," said Goyne, laughing. "It's always beautiful around here up until game time, then it gets ugly."

And what about the date?

UCLA and North Carolina turned down Independence Bowl officials this year because the game conflicted with exams. Maryland initially declined an offer for the same reason, but accepted the invitation after university president William E. Kirwan approved a plan for completion of schoolwork and exams.

"Initially, we had the game at this time of year because we wanted to kick off the college bowl season, didn't have to compete with the other bowls and get some people to do some early Christmas shopping here," said Goyne. "But we might have to change because of the conflicts with other schools."

Any change of date will have to be agreed to by Mizlou Television Network, which paid $20,000 in 1980 for exclusive rights to the game.

Mizlou will broadcast this year's game to about 120 stations, giving the Independence an audience of about 2 million households. And the Mizlou deal, up to $250,000, ended the bowl's reputation as only a regional game.

Goodbye, Southland Conference. Hello, national powers?

"We're not the type of bowl that is going to be playing for the national championship on Jan. 1," said Sigler. "We try to cater to the teams that want to be in our bowl as bad as we want them. try to get teams that are trying to get back to being a national power. For instance, one year we got Clemson after they came off probation."

Goyne said: "The ante [$600,000 per team, National Collegiate Athletic Association minimum] is not enough to compete with the bigger bowls. What's equally important is that we have never missed a payoff to a team. Never."

Two years ago, the sponsorless Independence Bowl seemed on the verge of extinction.

Enter Poulan-Weed Eater, a Shreveport-based lawn equipment company.

After the bowl was turned down by such companies as Ford and AT&T, Poulan-Weed Eater committed to sponsor the game on a yearly basis, agreeing to a $600,000-per-team payout, increasing $50,000 every year until it reaches $750,000.

"There were rumors the bowl might be having financial difficulties," said Carl Mikovich, president of Poulan-Weed Eater and a 1950 graduate of Johns Hopkins University. "After 14 years, we thought the game should continue. We recognize the Independence Bowl has brought national prestige to our city and surrounding areas of Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas. We'll continue to back the game as long as it breaks even."

"I think the game is well-attended from the fans of the universities involved, but not from the people within the city," said newly elected Mayor Hazel Beard. "They have always kind of had this wait-and-see kind of approach."

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